"As I grew up, instead of wanting to marry Paul McCartney, I wanted to be him": How The Bangles wooed 1984 with their power-pop debut All Over The Place

The Bangles group portrait
(Image credit: Neil Zlozower/Atlas Icons)

Growing up in the 60s and early 70s, all the future Bangles were mad for The Beatles. And they were no ordinary fans. Susanna Hoffs used to pose in front of the mirror, pretending she was on stage with the Fabs. Michael Steele wore a mop-top wig and did skits in school. Sisters Debbi and Vicki Peterson dreamed of forming a band that would be the next Beatles. 

“As I grew up, instead of wanting to marry Paul McCartney, I wanted to be him,” guitarist/ vocalist Vicki Peterson tells Classic Rock. “And it was kind of magical that the four of us found each other, because we all shared the same obsession with the British Invasion, and The Beatles especially. They were our musical school. Their songwriting structures, harmonising, and even the fact that there were four strong personalities, with three lead singers, we wanted to emulate that.” 

By the early 80s they were doing just that, as The Bangs (a lawsuit from another band with the same name forced them to add ‘les’). On the back of an indie-released EP, they carved out a tuneful niche in LA’s Paisley Underground scene, gigging at clubs like The Music Machine and Cathay de Grande. When they signed with Police manager Miles Copeland, one of his first moves was to put them on the road, ultimately building chops that would feed into their 1984 debut album All Over The Place

“That was a magic moment,” Peterson recalls of the shift to touring life. “He said: ‘How would you like to go on tour with The English Beat?’ It was the opportunity we’d been waiting for. Debbi and I were still sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, and I was sleeping in the living room. I was still driving a beat-up Volkswagen. So we all quit our day jobs and went on tour. And we toured non-stop.” 

But it wasn’t always easy being an opener. 

“It was either no soundcheck, or the promoter didn’t bother telling anyone you were on the bill,” Peterson recalls. “Then we’d face an audience of pseudo-punkers wanting to hear ska, and they’re looking at this group of girls, thinking:, ‘What the fuck is this?’ But it built character.” 

Back in LA in late 1983, the quartet signed with Columbia, who put them in the studio with David Kahne. Working in Hollywood, at Crystal Sound and Soundcastle, Kahne was mostly hands-off, letting them experiment with arrangements.

“We were not experienced studio musicians by any stretch,” Peterson says. “So we were kind of finding our way as we went. Even though we were building a foundation of what we wanted to sound like instrumentally, we knew we wanted to do a lot of harmony vocals. That was really important to us.”

But with three strong vocalists in the mix, how did they decide who took the lead? 

“The Bangles was a democracy, which is a flawed system, as we know,” Peterson says with a laugh. “But usually whoever brought the song in would end up singing lead. That said, it became clear that David preferred Susanna’s voice, so more songs got shifted over to her.” 

Although Peterson says the album’s title reflected the band’s feeling that it was stylistically all over the place, today, forty years on, she says she can hear “more through lines and continuity”. Indeed, with standout tracks James, Hero Takes A Fall and Dover Beach, along with a cover of Kimberly Rew’s Going Down To Liverpool (the video for which featured Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr Spock, as The Bangles’ chauffeur – “He was quite stoic, not unlike Spock,” Peterson says), it’s one of the 80s’ most tightly constructed debuts – a distinct calling card. 

At the same time, it’s easy to forget just how out of step The Bangles’ retro-pop sound was with prevailing trends. In May 1984, when the album was released, US radio was spinning glossy hits such as Duran Duran’s The Reflex, Thompson Twins’ Hold Me Now and Madonna’s Borderline

“The early eighties hadn’t fully achieved that critical sonic landscape we associate with the eighties yet,” Peterson says, “but I didn’t love what was on the radio at all. So we were kind of fighting against that sound. Listening to All Over The Place now, I love how we approached it in a naturalist way. No synthesisers or drum machines.

“At the same time, we sweated over every single moment,” she continues. “We were all so exhausted by the end of it. I remember saying to my boyfriend at the time: ‘I don’t know how anyone ever makes a second record!’”

Of course, The Bangles did make several records, including their 1986 commercial peak Different Light, its singles Manic Monday, Walk Like An Egyptian and If She Knew What She Wants propelling them to stardom via MTV and Top 40 radio. 

In the 21st century they have remained busy, mostly with solo pursuits. Last year, Hoffs published her first novel, This Bird Has Flown, while Peterson continues to record and tour with two bands: Continental Drifters and Action Skulls (with husband John Cowsill). Her sister Debbi does studio work and plays with the Minus 5. Steele retired from music in 2005 and now has a career as a painter. 

Although they haven’t been recording or performing regularly together – just two albums and tours in the past 20 years – Peterson says they’re “still very much in each other’s lives”, and currently working on two legacy projects. “There’s an authorised biography and a documentary, both hopefully coming in 2024,” she says. “I think they will help solidify our history.” 

Because of those projects, she’s been looking back more than usual. 

“I feel most nostalgic for the earliest version of the band, when we made the EP but hadn’t gotten signed to Columbia yet,” Peterson says. “We were at our purest and just doing what felt very natural to us. It’s musically valid and very interesting, with a really great spirit to it. And All Over The Place still has a lot of that in it.”

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.